Regime of restrictions

Print edition : June 05, 1999

In an apparent bid to preserve the United States' nuclear hegemony, a move is on in the U.S. to impose restrictions on visits to its nuclear weapons laboratories by scientists or others from 25 countries, including India, which are listed as sen sitive.

ON April 27, Senator Richard C. Shelby moved a bill in the United States Senate, titled Department of Energy Sensitive Country Foreign Visitors Moratorium Act of 1999. The bill seeks to ban the visit of a scientist or any other person "who is a citizen o f a nation that is named on the Department of Energy (DoE) Sensitive Countries List" to any facility of a National Laboratory of the DoE. The term "National Laboratory" refers to the three U.S. nuclear weapons laboratories; namely, the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL), Livermore, California; the Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL), Los Alamos, New Mexico; and the Sandia National Laboratories (SNL), Albuquerque, New Mexico, and its facility located adjacent to the LLNL.

A "sensitive country" is one which the DoE considers a risk on the grounds of national security, nuclear proliferation, regional instability or terrorism, and may therefore want to acquire U.S. nuclear weapons secrets. India is among the countries named in the DoE's Sensitive Countries List, which consists of 25 countries. The other countries in the list are Algeria, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, China, Cuba, Georgia, Iran, Iraq, Israel, Kazakhstan, Kirghizia, Libya, Moldova, North Korea, Pakistan, Russ ia, Sudan, Syria, Taiwan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Ukraine, Uzbekistan. The bill provides for exceptions to the ban only on a case by case basis following an assurance by the DoE Secretary to Congress that the visit is vital to U.S. national security.

Moving the bill (S.887), Shelby, a Republican and also the Chairman of the Select Senate Committee on Intelligence, said: "The Senate Intelligence Committee has been critical of DoE's counter-intelligence programme for nearly 10 years. Beginning in 1990 we identified serious shortfalls in funding and personnel dedicated to protecting our nation's nuclear secrets. Year after year, the Committee has provided additional funds and directed many reviews and studies in an effort to persuade the DoE to take ac tion. Unfortunately, this and prior administrations failed to heed our warnings. Consequently, a serious espionage threat at our national labs has gone virtually unabated and it appears that our nuclear weapons programme may have suffered a serious damag e."

The exaggeration of serious espionage continuing unabated would appear to be largely political rhetoric and the serious damage that Shelby has referred to is the alleged transfer of classified information relating to the design of the nuclear warhead W-8 8 to China in the mid-1980s. This is alleged to have been done with the help of Wen Ho Lee, a Taiwan-born U.S. national, employed as a computer scientist at the LANL. He is believed to have stolen the computer codes and other details while working at the LANL.

The theft came to light in 1995 when U.S. experts who analysed Chinese underground nuclear tests found a great similarity between the design of the device used in the tests and the W-88 design. Although the involvement of Lee had been suspected in 1996 i tself, U.S. investigating agencies were able to identify him as the person responsible for the theft only in March 1999. Lee was promptly dismissed from the laboratory and his house was searched, but there is not enough evidence yet to charge him.

More than the Indian (and Pakistani) nuclear tests of May 1998, it is this incident that appears to have given a renewed impetus to the issue of restricting the visits of foreign scientists to weapons laboratories, a matter which has been the subject of many U.S. studies since the late 1980s. The bill was first moved in the House of Representatives (H.R. 1348) by Jim Ryun and Gene Taylor on March 25, 1999, soon after the disclosure on this case by U.S. intelligence agencies. It has now been moved by She lby in the Senate, with nearly identical language and content.

The Indian and Pakistani tests, however, are bound to have a strong bearing on further action on the bill. From the Indian and Pakistani perspectives, the present move reinforces the visa restrictions and the curbs on collaborations and scientific exchan ges that were enforced in the wake of the tests.

The bill restricts its own scope to the DoE's weapons laboratories. Soon after the Pokhran and Chagai tests, the DoE issued what is known as the Pena Memorandum, which spelt out guidelines for the various collaborative research and exchange programmes of all DoE institutes - not just the weapons laboratories - with Indian and Pakistani institutions. As a result, for example, Indian participation in the major ongoing international collaborative programme called D-Zero at the Fermi National Accelerator La boratory, Illinois, had to be suspended.

The DoE policy that existed at the time of the Pokhran-II and Chagai "prohibited any interaction with Indian and Pakistani institutions or nationals (other than permanent lawful residents of the U.S.) that could directly contribute to the nuclear, missil e or other missile capabilities of the two countries." The Pena Memorandum, dated June 16, 1998, directed a stricter enforcement of this policy and the following set of additional actions:

* Suspend all activities financed by the DoE and the National Laboratories, except humanitarian assistance, with Indian and Pakistani government entities;

Taiwan-born U.S. national Wen Ho Lee after he was dismissed from the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico. It is alleged that he stole classified information from the weapons laboratory, where he worked since 1978.-

* Suspend all activities, including visits by Indian and Pakistani nationals from nuclear institutes and other entities in the sanctioned Entities List;

* University programmes receiving DoE funding should seek headquarters' guidance on continuing their activities with these entities;

* Suspend all high-level visits (Deputy Assistant Secretary or above and laboratory equivalents) to India and Pakistan; and

* Suspend hosting high-level delegations from these countries.

Any exception to these were to be made on a case by case basis with the approval of the DoE Secretary. The memorandum also said that "DoE and National Laboratory support for research and scholarly activities of Indian and Pakistani nationals from institu tes other than those listed, including support provided indirectly through U.S. universities, may continue until further notice."

The Nuclear Science Centre (NSC), an inter-university institution under the University Grants Commission, which does not figure in the Entities List, has a significant joint research and development programme with the Argonne National Laboratory (ANL), a DoE institution in Chicago. The programme continued for a while after the Pena Memorandum, but it has now been terminated and the NSC scientists are expected to return by August. From this, it is clear that the bill goes a little further by prohibiting interactions of all Indian and Pakistani institutions with the DoE's weapons laboratories.

HOW serious will the impact of this ban be on the Indian (and Pakistani) scientific community? Some interesting data in this respect are available from a September 1997 study by the U.S. Government's General Accounting Office (GAO) on the Controls Over F oreign Visitors to Weapons Laboratories. This study was carried out in response to a directive by a May 1996 report of the House Committee on National Security in order to determine how well the DoE had managed visits by foreigners to the weapons laborat ories.

The report observed that with the end of the Cold War and with the changing missions of the weapons laboratories, which had resulted in research activities in diverse fields such as high-performance computing, material science, astrophysics and even biol ogy, the number of unclassified visits by foreigners had increased significantly. However, in the context of some investigative cases in the 1990s involving foreign nationals in the DoE's laboratories, it expressed concern that, while foreign visitors pr ovided benefits to the DoE's programmes, the weapons laboratories were key targets of foreign intelligence interest and espionage.

In its assessment, the GAO found that the average annual number of visits by foreign nationals had increased by over 50 per cent from the late 1980s to the mid-1990s. And it was found to be increasing every year. According to GAO data, of the 20,000 uncl assified visits made to all the DoE institutions, about 7,000 were to the weapons laboratories. The GAO concurred with the House Committee that there had been cases of espionage in the 1980s and 1990s and obliquely referred to the Chinese espionage incid ent.

As such visits are perceived to be not without risk, the DoE had issued an order way back in 1992 prescribing detailed administrative procedures to control unclassified visits to and assignments at its facilities. These, as the term unclassified implies, do not offer access to classified research and information areas. A visit signifies a short-term stay of up to 30 days and an assignment, a long-term stay of between one month and two years. According to the DoE's estimates, about 25 per cent of the for eign visitors to its weapons laboratories are assignees. The DoE's data also show that almost 30 per cent of the visitors to the weapons laboratories are from sensitive countries.

The DoE's 1992 order betrayed a perceived security risk involved in visits to research areas, which, although unclassified, are sensitive, "because they have the potential to enhance nuclear weapons capability, lead to nuclear proliferation, divulge mili tarily critical technologies, or other advanced technologies". Sensitive subjects include nuclear weapons production and supporting technologies, detection of nuclear explosions, inertial confinement fusion, production and handling of plutonium and fuel fabrication.

In addition, subjects are considered sensitive if they belong to any of the following three categories: technologies under export control, "dual use" technologies, and rapidly advancing technologies that may become classified or may be placed under expor t control. These categories include computer systems; component development, software specially designed for military applications; extremely high-energy, high brightness lasers and particle beams; and high-energy density batteries and fuel cells.

As part of the administrative procedures laid down to clear the visit of a foreigner from a sensitive country, a "national security background check" is required to be done: this is to determine if U.S. government agencies have any derogatory information , such as intelligence affiliation, about the individual. As an extra line of defence, the DoE and its laboratories operate counter-intelligence programmes to identify and mitigate the risk of sensitive information being divulged to foreign countries. Ap parently, if "derogatory information" is received by the DoE, it rarely denies the visit but observes strict vigilance and counter-intelligence measures and restricts accessible areas or the subjects to be discussed.

DESPITE these measures, the GAO study found many lapses in the implementation of the procedures laid down at the three laboratories. It observed that few national security background checks were performed on visitors from sensitive countries. As a result , it found that foreigners suspected by the U.S. counter-intelligence community of having foreign intelligence affiliations had been permitted access to laboratories without the advanced knowledge of appropriate officials. Further, because of the impreci se criteria for what constituted sensitive subjects and the lack of an independent review process, foreign visits involving potentially sensitive subjects - such as inertial confinement fusion, hydrodynamic codes and the detection of nuclear weapon tests - were occurring without the DoE's knowledge, according to the study.

The GAO found that from 1994 to 1996, background checks were obtained only on 5 per cent of the visitors from sensitive countries to Los Alamos and Sandia as against 44 per cent in the case of visitors to Livermore (see Table). The study pointed out that by checking backgrounds of so few visitors from sensitive countries, DoE limited the collection of counter-intelligence data and may be unknowingly allowing significant numbers of visitors with "questionable backgrounds" into its weapons laboratories. I n support of this statement, the GAO provided data which showed that of the background checks the DoE held on its visitors from sensitive countries to the weapons laboratories during 1994-96, about 4 per cent indicated the existence of "derogatory infor mation". The GAO documented 13 instances where persons with suspected foreign intelligence links were allowed access without background checks - eight to Los Alamos and five to Sandia - during 1994-96.

According to the GAO report, while the DOE laboratories identified a total of 72 visits involving sensitive subjects during 1994-96, the GAO's own assessment was that 167 visits were related to sensitive subjects. Among these, the GAO has highlighted the visit by an Indian scientist from a defence-related facility to Los Alamos on an assignment which involved the structure of beryllium compounds. (Beryllium is used as a neutron reflector in nuclear weapons.) In another instance, an Indian scientist was on an assignment to Los Alamos for work related to pattern recognition and anomaly detection algorithms, an area regarded as dual-use with applications in satellite image processing.

These facts underscored the difference in the perceptions of the scientific community and the administrators as what constitutes sensitive subjects, with the latter's view being too broad and all-encompassing. As the Los Alamos scientists have pointed o ut, the problem has been vastly exaggerated because, for example, experiments in a subject like inertial confinement fusion are carried out all over the world and much of the information is available in open literature. Besides, academically speaking, it is difficult to determine what is sensitive, they say.

Nevertheless, according to the GAO, the DoE and the weapons laboratories had agreed that problems existed, and they had begun to take action. In November 1996, the DoE had initiated a multi-issue effort to revise its 1992 order, based on the shortcomings that the GAO had drawn attention to, such as the lack of performance measures to judge the efficacy of counter-intelligence operations. The GAO, on its part, had made a set of recommendations which included a directive to the DoE to make a comprehensive assessment of the espionage threat to serve as the basis to determine appropriate counter-measures and resource levels for laboratory counter-intelligence programmes and also to comply with the order by obtaining 'background checks' on all assignees fro m sensitive countries. These are, according to the DoE, being implemented.

GIVING the rationale for introducing a total ban on visits from sensitive countries, Shelby said: "While I welcome the efforts of the administration to address the problem, I am disappointed that it took some bad press (the recent disclosures on the Chin ese incident) to motivate them rather than a known threat to our national security. Nevertheless, the DoE has begun the process of repairing the damage caused by years of neglect, but it will take time to make the necessary changes. In fact, it may take years. In the interim, we must take steps to ensure the integrity of our national labs. I understand that a moratorium on the foreign visitors programme may be perceived as a draconian measure. Until the department fully implements a comprehensive and su stained counter-intelligence programme, however, I believe that we must err on the side of caution. The stakes are too high."

The move is largely a political response to a perceived threat, which in the view of the academic community is vastly exaggerated. It also reflects a paranoid obsession with non-proliferation, which has only been heightened by the Pokhran-Chagai tests. T he earlier House Committee report and the GAO study would also seem to be typically administrative hyper-reaction as in the case of other familiar measures, such as export controls and technology denial regimes of the U.S. administration. The Chinese esp ionage case, as yet unproven, is being used to institute yet another embargo to preserve the U.S' nuclear hegemony and nuclear stockpile.

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